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Urban Design

A Density Of Quality

In their seminal book on cities, “FARMAX”; the Dutch architects MVRDV make the observation that Asian cities are usually two sets of urbanisms juxtaposed upon each other. The first, a Planned City; designed and planned by governments and other institutions; and a second (perhaps more vital) city; formed by the pragmatic necessities of context and demand, built from the bottom-up; sitting within and surrounding the Planned City. Often perceived or described to be a certain indiscipline on the part of the citizen, which could be cured through education and better enforcement; this incongruity manifests itself most powerfully in the disparity between the planned human and built densities in an urban space and the densities that actually manifest themselves in that space.

 

The number of people, buildings, vehicles, telephones etc., per hectare of urban space are is crucial to our understanding of the situations that cities find themselves in. For example, the density of people indicates the ecological and logistical pressures on a particular urban space; while the density of buildings reveals the intensity of activity, the density of dustbins (or lack thereof) has a strong correlation to hygiene; as hospitals do for the general health of a community. As descriptions of facets of urban life, these indices describe various facets of Urbanism; while simultaneously aiding in the identification of potential deficiencies or excesses within the systems they depict. Based on this fact, it can be posited that the management and planning of cities may simply be a process of correcting the undesirable densities of various aspects of the city and bring them to their optimum levels (or creating them, in the case of planning), creating a systemic equilibrium that can be carefully calibrated through vigilant urban institutions which can perform this function scientifically. Much of Urban Planning and Management, especially in India; works upon this elegant supposition. However, this thesis is built upon a fundamental assumption of an ideal density for each aspect of the city; the identification of which is crucial to the calibration of the City. The objective therefore, is to create an ideal city. Amartya Sen’s book, “The Idea of Justice”; which inspired this essay, is an excellent analysis of a similar line of thought in the area of Justice and of a perfectly just society.

 

The “Ideal State” of the City is the subject of much scholarship, literature and art of varying quality and immense quantity. The diversity of the artistic and scholarly opinion based on different points of view with regard to politics, philosophy, economics, culture etc; makes a consistent description of the Ideal City as elusive as it is evocative. The “Ideal Case” of urbanism or its aspects, must therefore satisfy all of the varied opinions and compulsions that may be identified as its characteristics; while occupying a clearly delineated geographic space. The result tends towards a transcendental archetype which grows increasingly abstract as more and more points of view are added to it; making a clearly defined, objectively reasoned “Ideal City”; a shifting, illusory construct. The subjectivity of the Ideal City reinforces the need for a more responsive approach towards the planning and management of cities in general and urban density in particular.

 

If the “Ideal City” is a theoretical construct, then it must follow that any of its quantitative attributes are also arbitrary; especially any attempt to “fix” the ideal density of a particular place, through tools of planning like a pre-determined Floor Space Index (also expressed as Floor Area Ratio), which is traditionally applied without regard to context and is determined primarily by other numeric considerations like the road width, site extent etc. Since the Real City is anything but abstract; it is imperative the notion of an “ideal density” be replaced by the concept of an appropriate density which can be determined by more subjective means, some of which are measurable (proximity to public transport, demand for jobs, the availability of resources like water etc.) and others that are not (like culture, emotional affiliations, history etc.); all of which are unique to a particular location and not defined by statistics alone – a density of quality.

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